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Fact-Checking The Medical Marijuana Debate

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

United For Care’s John Morgan and Jessica Spencer squared off Tuesday night in a televised medical marijuana debate.

The debate, hosted by Orlando television station WESH, lasted 30 minutes. Florida voters will decide whether to legalize full-strength medical marijuana in  November. You can watch the debate here.

Here is a transcript of the debate, with fact checking from health reporter Abe Aboraya.

MODERATOR ADRIAN WHITSETT: I know there’s a lot that we want to sift through tonight so we want to start by giving you both a chance to make a brief opening statement. You will each have a minute, and Mr. Morgan won the drawing right before this debate, and you chose to go second, so Dr. Spencer we begin with you.

SPENCER: I think it’s important for people to really understand that there is no conclusive evidence that marijuana as an entire plant works as a medicine. We do have cannabis-based medications available, and we also have three laws here in the state of Florida (where) people are allowed to use medical marijuana for whatever ails them. What’s important for voters to understand is this is a constitutional amendment. This is not a bill that we can work through our Legislature with them. We need to be very careful when we’re looking at constitutional amendments that they’re perfect. This is not perfect. This is de facto legalization of marijuana here in the state of Florida. Seeing is believing. Our viewers and our state and our people need to go and look and educate themselves and see what they’re experiencing in California and all of the other states that have medical marijuana laws.

MORGAN. Two years ago we were here debating with other people. A lot has changed in the last two years. Last time the Supreme Court approved our language 4 to 3. This time 7-0. Last time you saw a lot about these loopholes, supposed loopholes. Our new language closed those loopholes; you don’t hear anything about it now. Last time Pam Bondi filed an amicus brief against us. You don’t see her here today, you don’t see that amicus brief. We had people telling us that this was the legalization of marijuana. Dr. Spencer just said it. It’s not the legalization of recreational marijuana. What this is, is a cure or a help for really, really, really sick people. What you’re going to hear on the other side are things that aren’t true. They’re going to say it will be in candy form for our children. Doesn’t have to be in candy form, the Legislature can say no to that. They’re gonna say there will be a pot shop on every corner. That’s not true. Any municipality can ban it from their cities or counties. I have a lot of respect for [Jessica Spencer]. Remember she’s not a medical doctor. She’s an educator, and I haven’t found a medical doctor that willing to do this debate with me because they deal with people every single day.

WHITSETT: We want to tell you about the poll that WESH 2 commissioned. One of the questions asked of the 503 likely voters stated if the election were held today, would you support or oppose this amendment. 69 percent said they would support it, 24 percent said they would oppose it, 7 percent were undecided. I’m gonna begin with you Dr. Spencer: your response to what seems like an even higher level of support for this amendment than there was even back in 2014?

SPENCER: Absolutely, and I think that’s completely understandable because, again, to me this is a very predatory amendment. It preys on our compassion as human beings to not want individuals to suffer. If you simply look at the ballot summary, I think the majority of Floridians would vote yes. But that’s not really what it says when you get into the meat of the amendment. This also preys on families that are looking for a last hope and are looking for a possible solution to what their family is going through and what disease process they’re dealing with. And that’s just simply not how we do medicine, this isn’t how we do medicine. This is de facto legalization of marijuana, period. And their language says so.

WHITSETT: Do you have anything to say Mr. Morgan?

MORGAN: Just because you say it’s de facto legalization marijuana, it’s not. If it was, it would say that it’s the de facto legalization of marijuana. That’s her very best argument. When your best argument is just a blatant falsehood, I don’t know how you debate that. Look. Really sick people need this. The reason you don’t see the sheriff’s out here debating me is when Grady Judge used to debate me, a great man, a great sheriff, he used to say, look, I’m for the legalization of medical marijuana, I just want it to be done in Tallahassee. He didn’t what a constitutional amendment. I was good with that. For the last 2 years I fought for it, fought hard to get it done in Tallahassee. One year they broke up early, they couldn’t even agree with themselves, they left early. The next year they couldn’t get it done. So when our legislators won’t do the job we sent them to do, this is where the power the constitution hands the power back to the people. And we get to have real change.

FACT CHECK: Florida’s Legislature has approved non-euphoric medical marijuana, which is being delivered to patients now, and terminally ill patients can access full-strength medical marijuana.

WHITSETT: If Dr. Spencer is saying that this is de facto legalization of marijuana, are you worried at all about the danger of marijuana use for the larger population? If there’s going to be more marijuana out there, then more people will be using marijuana.

MORGAN: Listen, you look like a young guy to me. If you want to get marijuana, you can have it in five minutes. I’m an old guy. I’m an old fat guy and if I want it I can have it in about five minutes. Getting marijuana is not a problem in Florida.

WHITSETT: This is something we asked in our WESH 2 poll. Marijuana is sold in other states to help patients reduce pain. Oxycodone, fentanyl, hydrocodone, other opioids also control pain. Both opioids and cannabis can cause impairment, so what gives you more concern: The potential for opioid abuse or the potential for marijuana abuse. 67 percent of respondents say opioid abuse gave them more concerned, 16 percent said marijuana, 18 percent weren’t so sure. We put this out on Facebook, Crystal agreed with one claim. She said pharmaceutical companies don’t want it to happen, but I pray for all those all of those that need it and use it. Dr. Spencer, one of the issues here is people wondering if big pharmaceutical companies are helping to fund this campaign so they can keep money in their pockets instead of getting people get help that they may need for legalized medical marijuana?

SPENCER: I think that’s another good concern that people have, and it makes sense that people would think that. Unfortunately, that’s simply not the case. Our campaign does receive money from big pharma, I don’t receive money from big pharma, if big pharma wanted total control over this, they would have done this already. We already have cannabis-based medications that are available and that are going through the FDA process. Those are another way that we convoluted and confuse the issue and start taking the focus away from the issues that other states are dealing with marijuana and try to push them over to this opioid issue. Which is terrible and we’re dealing with that right here in our state, but what people need to understand is the legalization of medical marijuana does not take care of the opioid crisis. In fact, Colorado, which has medical and recreational marijuana, they’re second in the country for opioid overdoses. We continue to see opioid overdoses rise in those states.

FACT CHECK: Recent studies have found a statistically significant drop in opioid overdoses in states that have medical marijuana,although more study is needed. And Colorado is not second in the country for opioid overdoses.

SPENCER: This is not the fix-all for that. And what’s interesting is that, at least the pharmaceuticals that we have in those opioids have known side effects. We know how much to take, when to take it. Marijuana, which has over 500 chemicals in the entire plant, which by the way the language does specifically allow for edibles, has over 500 chemicals that have unknown side effects, unpredictable side effects. This is not good medicine, this is not good practice, and this will not fix your opioid problem. Period. It’s not in other states.

WHITSETT: And I assume that you disagree?

MORGAN. What she said is totally false. Let me give you some truths. In Arizona, there’s a ballot initiative right now. The maker of fentanyl, the drug that killed Prince, poured in blatantly $3.5 million. They don’t want to compete.

FACT CHECK: In Arizona, the contribution was actually $500,000, and the company also offers a generic equivalent to Marinol.

MORGAN: The heiress to the Publix fortune in Florida, who sells a lot of opioids, poured in $800,000. That’s where you get your opioids from. Look, I’m in the business of litigating against manufacturers of these drugs and tobacco companies. These companies are in the business of premeditated murder. 14,000 people die every single year from the use of opioids. Hundreds of thousands are hooked and millions of family members are affected. Google this tonight, because she’s gonna say something different. How many people have ever died from using marijuana in any form? She’s gonna say, well, someone died, someone jumped off a balcony. Google that. Because no one has ever died from ingesting marijuana. And as far as her edibles go, look, they’re going to try to scare you to death, oh my god, look, there’s candy for kids. The Florida Legislature can say the edibles could not be in candy for.

WHITSETT: That’s not in the amendment.

MORGAN: That’s not in the amendment, but that’s in her argument. When she talks to you about candy, that’s a red herring, because there doesn’t have to be candy.

SPENCER: There are so many issues there, I don’t even know where to begin. When we talk about red herring, that’s interesting too, because actually this industry has said we will use medical marijuana to give marijuana a good name. I’d also like to go back and fact check Mr. Morgan. I didn’t know how much had gone into Arizona in the previous debate, but I did actually go back and look. It’s not $3.5 million. There’s another made up lie. It was $500,000, and they actually make a fentanyl spray that’s used at the end of life. But this is the whole point, to deter and deflect and start talking about something else and start talking about another issue that has nothing to do with this. I’d love to see Mr. Morgan put his money where his mouth is and actually go into educating physicians and patients and maybe even the insurance industries to not use these pain scales from 0 to 10, which are irrelevant and don’t work. But that’s not what we’re here to talk about, we’re here to talk about a deeply flawed amendment that is going to forever change our constitution, that the Florida Sheriff’s Association, the Florida Police Chief’s Association, and every other major medical organization has come out against. Including our current presidential administration, because this is not how we do medicine

WHITSETT: This ad gets a lot of response on the WESH 2 Facebook page, I just wanna share one. Sean writing every time I see that commercial stating that medical marijuana is going to be packaged for children and sold near schools, I want to scream. I hope people don’t listen to the fear-mongering. Dr. Spencer, is this fearmongering, or do you believe the statements made in this ad are accurate?

SPENCER: I wish this was fear-mongering, but unfortunately, it’s accurate. And to use one of Mr. Morgan’s favorite terms, Google it. The EdiPure, it says medical on it. This is exactly what we see in other states that have this quote medical marijuana, and the amendment specifically says edibles. And the amendment also doesn’t allow for you to make any changes to it. The legislature can only enact the plain language, so if we try to go in as municipalities and say we do not want it packaged like candy, we don’t want it to look like candy, like Colorado is now trying to change with their “medibles” look like, we can’t do that, because they were violating the constitution. So it is not fearmongering, unfortunately, it’s reality based and we need to be careful, and we need to be concerned and protect our children.

WHITSETT: Mr. Morgan, if we are adding medical marijuana dispensaries and another drug to state already struggling with the drug crisis, the opioid crisis, are we just making the problem worse if we legalize medical marijuana?

MORGAN: No. Think about the argument that this is going to be next to schools. Are there strip clubs next to schools? No. There are zoning laws that protect us from what we don’t want. There will be edibles, but it doesn’t have to be in candy form. Now that’s their best argument, because we love our children, we’re scared for our children, so they want to scare us, to trick us, by saying our kids are going to get into this candy. It can only happen if the Florida Legislature allows it to happen. The zoning, look. Municipalities have already banned dispensaries from their whole towns now. Her best argument is it’s the legalization of recreational marijuana. False. Children are gonna eat it like candy. False. They’re going to be next to our schools. I don’t even think you can open a liquor store next to a school.

WHITSETT: But is there any language in there that says that you couldn’t do that?

MORGAN: No, but that’s why we elect officials, that’s why we supposedly trust our mayors. Listen. How fast do you think a person be voted out of office if they put the pot shop right next to school? How many elections do you think that person would survive? None. You gotta think it all the way through, you can’t just look at this scare tactic.

WHITSETT: We’ve got a lot of comments and questions about whether or not a prescription would be needed to get marijuana if Amendment 2 passes on the WESH 2 Facebook page. Roston asks: I keep hearing the argument that this is not a prescription medicine. If it was for medicinal purposes, I would still think you would need a prescription, correct? Mr. Morgan, in truth marijuana would not get prescribed, it would be recommended, but does that not open the door for bad doctors over prescribing this drug?

MORGAN: Bad doctors are always a problem. But I’d rather a doctor be prescribing this then OxyContin. So if the argument is we’re gonna have to worry about crooked doctors, then we get rid of the crooked doctors, but we don’t though the baby out with the bath water.

WHITSETT: Dr. Spencer, even if marijuana gets recommended, not prescribed, why do you believe a prescription for an opioid – which we know can be highly addictive – would be better to help Floridians suffering with things like cancer, HIV-AIDS, PTSD and so on versus medical marijuana.

SPENCER: I don’t think we’ve ever said it was better. I think they’re two separate issues, and again, like I said before, if there’s issues that we need to talk about, I’d love to come back to discuss it. But what we’re here to talk about is this marijuana, and no, it is not a prescription, and that’s one of those misnomers that people think, because you put the word medical in front of it. But it is not dosed, it’s not standardized, we don’t know how much you take, when to take it, how to take it. That’s not how this works. And it is de facto legalization. If they didn’t want it to be that, they would put a period at the end of the sentence, and they would have left it up to groups of medical professionals decide what other medical conditions would qualify. Instead they left it open to these other conditions, same similar as, enumerated by, which then opens the door – crafty lawyering – for any symptomatology under those disease processes. So now these people which, again, predatory, this is not going to help them. We don’t know enough about it, there is no conclusive evidence that needs to be put up to science the way the rest of our pharmacopeia is.

MORGAN: The reason that this cannot be a prescription is because marijuana in America is a Schedule 1 drug. Why is it a Schedule 1 drug? Years ago, there was a movie called “Reefer Madness.”

SPENCER: Oh here we go.

MORGAN: Which stood for the proposition that a black man and a white woman may get together. And you know what they did? They made it a Schedule 1 drug. We can‘t even study it.

FACT CHECK: Marijuana has been studied pretty extensively for treatment of a variety of diseases. The federal government actually pays the University of Mississippi to grow marijuana, but research studies have to be approved by several federal agencies.

MORGAN: Google what’s going on in Israel. In Israel there’s been unbelievable studies. No, they don’t (study it), they can’t. Because it is a Schedule 1 drug and it was put in a Schedule 1 drug, and changed it from cannabis to marijuana because they wanted it to sound Mexican instead of cannabis.

FACT CHECK: There actually is evidence that the name was changed to prey on immigration fears in the early 20th century.

WHITSETT: That seems like we’re getting a little off topic.

MORGAN: No, it’s not, the reason you’re not, because the argument is it’s not a prescription. It can’t be a prescription because it’s a Schedule 1 drug.

SPENCER: So I wouldn’t be so rude as to interrupt him while he was speaking, but I am going to go ahead and answer that. That has nothing to do with it. You can study this. They continue to study it. This campaign comes out and says we have studies. We have five drugs right now they’re going through [investigational new drug] trials, done the right way, the way that we do medicine. I go back to it’s 500-plus chemicals in this plant. It needs to go up to the scrutiny in the study to make sure that we know what we are giving people, so that we don’t give them a false hope or something that could be detrimental to them. This whole fearmongering and scare tactic that we can’t do it because it’s a schedule one is simply false, and again OK, Google it.

MORGAN: Where is it studied? What university?

FACT CHECK: The University of California San Diego has the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, and under Florida’s limited medical marijuana laws, the University of Florida will begin doing research as well.

SPENCER: It has nothing to do with that. It doesn’t have to be a university.

MORGAN: It can’t be. Look, there’s a pill called Marinol. It doesn’t work. They have not been able to harness it to work in a pill form. It does not work. But when you look at what’s going on in Israel, and the studies have gone on in Israel, it is miraculous. Look at that report by Sanjay Gupta, who did a two-part series on this, went to Israel, did the study. You know what his conclusion was? This is essential, and it’s essential in Florida because we got 400,000 to 500,000 really, really, really sick people that need it.

FACT CHECK: FDA approved double-blind, placebo controlled studies have found Marinol to be effective at increasing appetite.

SPENCER: Thankfully it’s available.

WHITSETT: We’ll now go to closing arguments. Mr. Morgan?

MORGAN: Here’s the deal. The organization that is behind this started out years ago called Straight Inc. Google it. Straight Inc. When you look at Straight Inc., and the backers of Straight Inc., you are going to be horrified. Horrified at what these folks did to our children. I know she doesn’t want you to Google it when you finish this channel. Google the words Straight Inc., and the words torture, abused children. When you see what pops up, you’re going to see who is against this much-needed amendment.

FACT CHECK: Mel Sembler, one of the biggest funders of Drug Free Florida, founded Straight Incorporated, a controversial drug treatment program for youth. The organization lost several lawsuits and faced penalties in multiple states.

WHITSETT: Dr. Spencer?

SPENCER: I may have to Google it because I’ve never heard of it before, so this’ll be interesting. I think what’s really important for people to understand is do we want to believe the medical professionals and the medical communities and the law enforcement agencies and the people that understand science? What we should do here, and how dangerous a constitutional amendment of this kind, which is in fact de facto legalization, or do we want to believe the predators that prey on our compassion and our caring for individuals that suffer? Or do we want to go by the facts? So I choose to believe the Florida Supreme Court justices that are against this, and every other major medical organization that knows, including our administration, that knows this is not medicine, this is not how we do medicine. Instead of predatory individuals that write things to scare people into ‘this is how we have to do medicine.’ It’s not right. Vote no on 2.

Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya works for WMFE in Orlando. He started writing for newspapers in high school. After graduating from the University of Central Florida in 2007, he spent a year traveling and working as a freelance reporter for the Seattle Times and the Seattle Weekly, and working for local news websites in the San Francisco Bay area. Most recently Abe worked as a reporter for the Orlando Business Journal. He comes from a family of health care workers.